Review: Thief in Law

I received a free copy of this ebook from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Full disclosure: this is one of a handful of Russia-related subjects on which I have close to zero knowledge. Before reading Thief in Law, the only books I’d read on Russian organized crime were vol. 1 of the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia and Svetlana Stephenson’s Gangs of Russia, which dealt more with youth street gangs than professional criminals. I came to this book with a tabula rasa and this review is more exploratory than usual. Give me a few more reviews and I’ll probably be back to normal.

Oh, and since it’s an ebook, page numbers are cited as ‘Locations’ in-text.

Anyway…abrupt segway! Thief in Law!

Move over, Danzig Baldaev! It’s time for another specialist – this time seasoned British police officer Mark G. Bullen – to take a crack at the esoteric system of Russian criminal tattoos.

Back in 2010, During a police training exchange in St. Petersburg, Bullen noticed that almost every criminal the police dealt with bore similar bluish-green prison tattoos. He wondered why they were so common and what they meant. Upon return to the UK, he began researching Russian prison tattoos. Thief in Law is the culmination of Bullen’s research. It’s divided into three sections: part one details the rise of the vory-v-zakone (the professional criminals) and puts the structure of this criminality into historical and political context; part two explains the meanings behind commonly-encountered prison tattoos; and part three presents illustrations of tattoos along with previously unpublished photographs of “Russian” criminals.

According to Bullen, the phenomenon of prison tattoos began during the Imperial period, possibly inspired by meetings between Russian sailors and their tattooed British counterparts (Loc 130). However, at that time Russia was already branding its criminals: until the mid nineteenth century, offenders sentenced to hard labor were branded with the word “vor” (thief) or “kat” (katorzhnik, hard labor convict) directly on their faces so that they could never hide their crimes. Over time, tattooing became an important part of criminals’ image. In particular the vory used a coded language of tattoos to describe specific crimes and keep out infiltration from law enforcement. They coupled this language with the poniatiia, a strict code of ethics that ensured loyalty and severely punished deviation.

After the end of the Stalinist period, says Bullen, the thieves’ code lost much of its mystique, and the poniatiia became an ideal rather than a requirement. Breaking the rules was seen more sympathetically. Prison tattoos became a nod to traditions of the past – they simply showed a person had been in the zona and signified the crimes, lifestyle, and attitude the bearer wanted to represent (Loc 549).

Besides tracing the origin of Russian prison tattoos, Bullen provides an overview of the evolution of Russian-speaking organized crime during the 20th century. Most notably, he concentrates on an ethnic split in the criminal class that occurred in the 1980s over whether to engage in black-market dealings with corrupt officials. Slavic Purists still following the poniatiia felt it was a betrayal of honored traditions to trade with any part of the Soviet regime; however, the black market was large and other criminals – many of them Georgian – thought dealing with government officials was both low-risk and highly lucrative (Loc 709). Georgians remain the largest ethnic group of organized criminals in and around Russia to date. Moving on, Bullen documents the exploits of organized crime groups and oligarchs in the 1990s (lots of voucher-seizing), including an overlong, slightly tangential biography of Boris Berezovsky and his business life. And what became of the vory in the 2000s? Well, apparently “the Russian state’s attack on organized crime and its leaders has led to an unprecedented exodus of criminals from within Russia’s borders” (Loc 1319). Seems like the feds have so successfully cracked down on organized crime groups that fleeing to Europe and North America is the criminals’ only option. I’m so thankful Bullen didn’t say Putin’s weaponized the vory as a means to undermine Europe, though. Great!

And there the history ends.

Surprisingly enough, there isn’t much of an argument for me to make here. Thief in Law is meant to be a guide and fulfills that purpose smoothly. Especially with such a shadowy topic as Russian organized crime – where there’s incentive for sensational writing – it’s commendable that Bullen, for the most part, keeps his book neutral and readable. He distills complex matter into layman’s terms with great success, making it easy for those new to the world of Russian-speaking organized crime to soak up information. Of course, where the book really shines is parts two and three, where you actually get to see the tattoos Bullen speaks of. The illustrations thankfully aren’t as eye-rapingly graphic as the ones in Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia, but unfortunately, there aren’t as many of them here.

I subtracted one star for frequent grammatical errors and occasional sensational phrasing, which I found wholly unnecessary. Another round of editing would’ve benefited Thief in Law: to list a few spots, there’s an unnecessary apostrophe at Loc. 1255 (“the tattoo’s they needed”), United States is misspelled as “Unites States” at Loc 1266, and at Loc. 1181 Khodorkovsky’s name is misspelled as “Khordakovsky” (but hey, at least the book identifies him as a crook). And when I read such lines as “The civilized world is under siege from this Red Terror” (Loc 84), I nearly wanted to shout, “We ain’t in the Cold War no more!”

Nevertheless, these failures are minor and don’t detract from Thief in Law’s successes. It’s a neat little introductory guide with an interesting visual component. So if you’re curious about Russian-speaking organized crime and have an e-reader (sorry, there’s no print edition), I recommend giving Thief in Law a try.

★ ★ ★ ★

Thief in Law: a guide to Russian prison tattoos and Russian-speaking organized crime gangs by M.G. Bullen. Pub. Apr 2016 by One’s Own Publishing House Ltd. Kindle Edition, 346 pages. ASIN B01E2WV6C2.

29894943

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3 comments

  1. Hi J.T.

    Mark Bullen, the author of the book here. Thank you ever so much for the review and I’m really glad you enjoyed the book! Thanks also for pointing out those few errors, you’ll be glad to hear I’ve already amended them on Amazon KDP and they’re being updated as I type.

    I also wanted to let you and your readers know there is a hardback version of the book available through http://www.thiefinlaw.com and quite often on ebay, I’d be delighted to send you a copy as a gift if you email me your address.

    Thanks again

    Mark

    Like

    • Mr. Bullen, I visited you site. There, I found out the following in the bottom-left corner:

      “A portion of all profits from the sale of this book will go to Ukraine Charity.”

      I Googled this Ukraine Charity. They have the following projects:

      “Since 2014, Ukraine Charity has supported a programme whereby children of fallen Ukrainian soldiers travel to the United Kingdom for several weeks during the summer break and spend time at the “Tarasivka” summer camp in Weston-upon-Trent. This is an initiative of the Ukrainian Youth Association in Great Britain (CYM GB).”

      and

      “Ukraine Charity is also supporting the Kraplynka programme for early age education and social inclusion of children from families displaced by the military conflict in eastern Ukraine and the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation.

      And more:

      “We have provided funds to repair and furnish orphanages across Ukraine. We have also provided emergency relief for several refugee centres which have been set up following the external aggression upon the Donbas region and the Crimean peninsula.”.

      Here’s the map of their projects (indeed – what an amazing thing is the technical progress!). As everyone can see, they have one in Sevastopol, Crimean, RF – only they call it “occupied”. I wonder, do they call it occupied while working here? Are the authorities aware that the “mainland” branch of this charity toes the official line of Kiev and helps the children of the “heroes of the ATO” – but not the other side of the conflict, because, oh, “the external aggression”!

      Who are the fine people of this Ukraine Charity?

      “Ukraine Charity was founded by Oleksiy Soroka, Igor Hordiyevych and Ihor Okhrimenko.”

      Again – all hail the technical progress!

      Oleksiy Soroka – Maidown, literally a fan of Bandera and Shukhevitch, hardcore Holodomor necrophilac. Has connections to The American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, fan of the putrid Russophobic limey rag known as the Economist,

      Igor Hordiyevych – British big capital, with virtually no ties to his ancestral land.

      Ihor Okhrimenko – American big capital, and, again, a descendant of the émigrés.

      Same goes to the trustees – emigrants, mostly from the Western Ukraine. And their partners:

      Ukrainian Youth Association – literally, Bandera Yugend

      Ukrainian Events in London – thoroughly handshakable abode of Maidowns.

      Ukrainian-British City Club – a tad less Maidown, more internationally handshakable.

      The Ukrainian Institute in London – a curious cross between the Ukrainian Events in London’s agenda and the Catholic Church.

      ____________________________________________

      So I have to re-evaluate a little bit my attitude towards this book and to its author. I still approve of the review, and see nothing apparently wrong and bad with the book’s content, judging by the quotes. Still – and here I’m talking to all the people, who want to acquire this book – I just listed all the relevant information about this Ukrainian Charity, their leadership and their partners, all with relevant links. It’s up to you to decide, whether you support it.

      After all, if you do want to the book and appreciate it – there are *other* ways to acquire it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As a Russian, I approve both of this book and of this review, and totally in agreement that 4 out of 5 stars is perfectly justifiable for it. Well, what else can you expect from me? I cherish our prison “culture” in between acts of the “Red Terror” against the civilized world (and feeding my bear with the meat of dissidents) [nod, nod]

    Don’t know which tattoos are included in the book, or how are they listed, i.e. by what type or theme: by the location on the body (finger tattoos, torso tattoos, knee tattoos etc.), by the time period, by the status of the prisoner or his/her (yes, women prison tattoos are distinct and deserve their own chapter) background. Needless to say, in the RuNet there are plenty of sites and galleries about the meaning and history of the prison tattoos. Understandable, this one is one of my favorite:

    ^although I’m in no rush to get it anywhere on my body!;)

    “However, at that time Russia was already branding its criminals: until the mid nineteenth century, offenders sentenced to hard labor were branded with the word “vor” (thief) or “kat” (katorzhnik, hard labor convict) directly on their faces so that they could never hide their crimes.”

    Khmmm, not sure about the definition of the “kat” here (and it’s the first time I read that someone will tattoo such a word on himself). ”Kat” is the old word for the “executioner” (rus. “палач”), “torturer” (rus. “заплечных/пыточных дел мастер”), which came from the Sothern Russian dialect (and more or less still in use in the Ukraine in its original meaning plus as the demotion to the police). “Katorga”, therefore, means a “remote hard labor prison camp” (the closes thing in the English is… Botany Bay), and “katorzhanin”, “katorzhnik” – “katorga’s inmate”.

    “They coupled this language with the poniatiia, a strict code of ethics that ensured loyalty and severely punished deviation.”

    As the saying goes: “Where there is no Law, there is Honor”. And there was Honor among the Vory (in a way of speaking…)

    “After the end of the Stalinist period, says Bullen, the thieves’ code lost much of its mystique, and the poniatiia became an ideal rather than a requirement.”

    Probably more to do with 1956 Khruschev’s mass-amnesty, which covered not only “political” but, mostly, ordinary criminals. Paradoxically enough, but thanks to it and all those released members of intelligentsia, eager to share their… experience on the time in prison and with local spets contingent the prison slang, songs, terms and, yes, tattoos entered the life of the broader Soviet society!

    “Most notably, he concentrates on an ethnic split in the criminal class that occurred in the 1980s over whether to engage in black-market dealings with corrupt officials.”

    This is actually very important, because in the West all Russophonic organized crime gets lumped together as “Russian Mafiyah”, no matter the ethnicity of the speakers. And because they are from “Russian Mafiyah”, NATURALLY, all of them are former agents of KGB with ties stretching back to Kremlin (proof – just any Hollywood movie/TV Series).

    “Well, apparently “the Russian state’s attack on organized crime and its leaders has led to an unprecedented exodus of criminals from within Russia’s borders””

    How can it be?! But everyone handshakable is ready to swear upon “Putin: Itogi” (by the Saint Martyr Boris Nemtsov) that under Kremlin’s Tyrant everything had only become worse – and Free, Honest and Independent ™ Western Corporate Media gonna quote them and… propagate… their sentiments further, so that no one date to doubt that Russia is bad and evil.

    Liked by 2 people

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